Mid-level casual-dining chains continue their gradual exodus from Boulder, with the city's 20-year-old Olive Garden location the latest to shutter.
The Italian-American restaurant at 2685 Pearl St. closed over the weekend, joining the ranks of national casual-dining chains — among them Chili's, Applebee's and TGI Fridays — that have closed their Boulder locations in the past 10 years.
"First, closing this restaurant is a difficult business decision that we made very carefully and thoughtfully because it impacts our employees and guests," Mike Bernstein, a spokesman for Olive Garden operator Darden Restaurants Inc. said in a statement e-mailed to the Daily Camera.
"It is part of the continuous market evaluation every successful restaurant company does, and even the most successful casual-dining brands close restaurants from time to time due to changing local market conditions."
Darden has no immediate plans to relocate the restaurant and has not determined what to do with the building, which it owns.
"In no way does this reflect on the quality of our employees' work, and we're making every effort to relocate these team members to other Darden restaurants in the area," Bernstein said in the statement.
"In fact, managers from other Darden restaurants in the region, including Red Lobster and other Olive Garden locations, were on-site at the Boulder restaurant last Friday to immediately interview and place our team members in new jobs.
"If they prefer, employees also have the option of receiving a generous separation package."
The Boulder-region Darden restaurants include a Red Lobster in Longmont and Olive Garden locations in Westminster and Thornton.
The casual dining industry as a whole has suffered in recent years, with the bar-and-grill concepts taking the hardest blows, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based research and consulting firm in the food service industry.
"After many, many years with consecutive same-store sales growth, the major concepts sort of hit the wall a year-and-a-half ago and have struggled with sales," he said.
Segments that have fared better include "polished casual" concepts such as the Darden-operated Yard House and Eddie V's, which are positioned more toward the higher end. Additionally, consumers are gravitating more toward fast-casual operators and independently operated restaurants and chains, he said.
The growth of the craft beer movement combined with consumer dining trends have pulled some dollars away from the casual dining operator, he said.
"It's really raised the bar, no pun intended," Tristano said of craft beer.
Partly because of craft beer's national expansion, CraftWorks repositioned its Old Chicago concept to put a greater focus on hand-crafted offerings. CraftWorks has headquarters in Broomfield and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Olive Garden continues to expand by opening new stores and is seeming to find some success by rotating the menu frequently and having value-focused offerings such as the "buy one, take one," promotion, he said.
"We've not seen many closures ... this may be a tough town to be successful in, tough town for casual dining," Tristano said. "Because they have other locations, they can drive loyal customers (to the neighboring restaurants) without losing too much."
Sean Maher, executive director of Downtown Boulder Inc., said "middle-of-the-road" chain restaurants do seem to struggle in Boulder.
"Boulderites are just not very accepting and embracing of chain restaurants," he said. "We lost Chili's and Applebee's and Fridays. It's just clearly a pattern."
Maher said Cheesecake Factory, which operates in downtown Boulder, does not fall under that category because he considers it to be a higher-quality offering. Chains on the lower-priced, fast-casual end also fare well in Boulder.
"I think there's a lot of loyalty here," he said. "People want to shop local and I think that extends into the restaurant category as well."
Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or firstname.lastname@example.org